ROMANTIC AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN ENGLAND by Eugene Stelzig, ed., Reviewed by James O'Rourke
 

ROMANTIC AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN ENGLAND
Ed. Eugene Stelzig
(Ashgate, 2009) 219 pp.
Reviewed by James O'Rourke on 2010-03-13.

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Eugene Stelzig's introduction to this collection of essays testifies to the irreducible messiness of the object of inquiry. The problem does not lie in geographic or temporal questions, which are dealt with summarily; England is England (no Scottish or Irish writers are included), and temporal boundaries are stipulated by convention (Stelzig suggests that James Treadwell's Autobiographical Writing and British Literature 1783-1834 offers "plausible" chronological markers), but then we come to the term "autobiography." As Stelzig lucidly explains, this book does not attempt to provide either a definitional or an exhaustive account of the phenomenon that led Paul de Man to conclude that "attempts at generic definition seem to founder in questions that are both pointless and unanswerable." Instead, it presents twelve critics looking at specific instances (eight cases) and formal or thematic features (four cases) of autobiographical practice in order to provoke further study of what Stelzig identifies as a central legacy of Romanticism: "The autobiographization of literature," Stelzig argues, "is a key component of the culture of Romanticism" (3).

The essays are collected into three sections: five on "The Variety of Women's Life Writing," three on "Male Self-Fashioning," and four on "Genres and Modes" of autobiography. The gender distinction is based on the premise that male romantic autobiography is primarily devoted to the glorification of the "egotistical sublime" while women's self-writing is, in Stelzig's words, "more fluid, diffuse and relational" (5). While Stelzig's Introduction qualifies this distinction in principle, the collection as a whole attempts to ratify it in practice.

For instance, Kari Lokke's essay on Dorothy Wordsworth and Gertrude Stein begins by asking "What does one do with an autobiographical text rooted in an effacement of self?" (15), thus providing a clear counterpoint to Stelzig's contention that the "foundational work of modern autobiography," Rousseau's Confessions, "helped to initiate a culture of celebrity" (1). Using critical terms derived from Stein to frame Wordsworth's work, Lokke compares their autobiographical practices with mixed success. Stein's invidious insistence on writing for "god not mammon" serves as a model for Wordsworth's avoidance of the literary marketplace, but Lokke strains when she tries to link Stein's place in the modernist Parisian avant-garde with Wordsworth's "sense of community i[n] a decentered network of associations connected by proximities that present constant challenges to aesthetic and social hierarchies as well as to fixed individual identities" (28). More productively, however, she reads Wordsworth's diaries and letters in terms of a tension between representations of what Stein calls the organic, "daily island life" and Wordsworth's depictions of the effects of poverty and war on low and rustic life. Lokke follows Susan Levin (Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism [1987]) in showing how Wordsworth avoids the synthetic effects of metaphor, a trope that demonstrates the power of Imagination, in favor of metonymy and simile. Lokke's careful stylistic analysis brings out the stylistic continuities that join the similes of her celebrated nature writing with the language of her sometimes stark reports on the poorest members of her community. After dispassionately recording the horrors recounted by a sailor who had been taken in and fed by the Wordsworths, she tersely comments, "He was excessively like my brother John" (26).

The remaining essays in the section on women's writing are mixed in their treatment of genres and themes. Three of the four have more to do with the construction of public personae than with the exploration of private life. Sharon Setzer's account of Mary Robinson's Memoirs and Susan Levin's essay on The Memoirs of Mrs Billington from her Birth both describe the use of the memoir form to address a scandalous reputation, but they describe very different cases. Robinson's memoir is an exercise in self-rehabilitation, and Setzer shows how the Gothic tropes that inform the work emphasize a narrative of poetic self-development that competes with the account of Robinson's lively social existence. In the case of The Memoirs of Mrs Billington, only a small amount of the text was written by the actress Elizabeth Billington, and that portion was not meant for publication. Thirty pages of this ninety page work consist of letters written by Billington to her mother, which somehow ended up in the hands of a James Ridgway (there are, of course, conflicting accounts), who published the letters along with a long condemnatory essay as a proof of Billington's loose morals. As Levin shows, Ridgway presents the letters out of sequence in order to make Billington look more like a seducer of men than a victim, while "organizing the letters according to the dates provided and the subjects discussed provides a clear narrative underlain by a statement of female solidarity" (57) in the bond between Billington and her mother. Miriam Wallace offers Mary Hays' encyclopedic work Female Biography as an exercise in the advocacy of a particular subject position--a "transnational, cosmopolitan gendered identity" (76)--and Wallace notes that while "we may be rightly suspicious" of the problems with this position today, this was a brave argument for Hays to make in 1807, when a hyperbolic English nationalism was feeding on the hatred of "Jacobins." In the final essay in this section, Diane Hoeveler offers an intricate analysis of Mary Shelley's "The Mourner" as a revisionary return to the material of Mathilda, where "Both tales...hinge on issues of parricide, frustrated suitors, dead mothers, and guilty yet blameless heroines" (89). In both works, Hoeveler argues, Shelley uses screen memories that enable her to offer oblique representations of the vexed sexual and ethical issues that informed her relationships to her father William Godwin, her husband Percy Shelley, and Harriet Shelley, Percy's first wife, who committed suicide when he eloped with Mary.

The section on "Male Self-Fashioning" contains two treatments of canonical works, Joshua Wilner's analysis of the nest-robbing episode in William Wordsworth's Prelude and Frederick Burwick's overview of Thomas de Quincey's autobiographical works, along with Sue Brown's account of Joseph Severn's self-construction as "The Friend of Keats" (131). Wilner contrasts the truncated form of the nest-robbing episode with other more fully developed narrative sequences in the poem to suggest that this "literal cliff-hanger" (108) serves as a synecdoche for The Prelude as a whole as it crystallizes "a system of purposes [that] seems too complex to be plausible" in a "posthumous publication" that presents itself as a preparation for a future endeavor (102). Burwick's overview of de Quincey's autobiographical works focuses less on the labyrinths of the Confessions of an Opium-Eater than on the later Autobiographical Sketches, where de Quincey creates a public persona as the disappointed and "disaffected disciple" (126) of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Sue Brown's account of a similar process of the formation of a public identity as a shadow to a great poet emphasizes how Severn's posthumous reputation was a collaborative project that involved a number of his and Keats's friends and culminated in Severn's "re-burial, on the insistence of his admirers, in the same enclosure as Keats beneath a headstone which supplies the name so conspicuously missing from the poet's tombstone, as well as a long record of his own achievements" (133).

Three of the essays in the book's final section "Genres and Modes" suggest ways in which the term "autobiography" can be stretched well beyond standard classifications like Philippe Lejeune's definition of "a retrospective prose narrative made by a real person out of her own life" (my translation; "un  récit rétrospectif en prose qu'une personne réelle fait de sa propre existence" [Le Pacte autobiographique]). Christine Chaney suggests that the occasional essays of William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb and Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters from Sweden could be considered autobiographical works that depart from the usual retrospective focus of autobiography in favor of a "future-oriented framework" founded on "personal intimacy and familiar address to readers" (196-97). Kevin Binfield's "Ned Ludd and Laboring-Class Autobiography" shows how a wide range of writings produced by various hands over the pseudonym "Ned Ludd" served to construct a collective, self-authored account of working class activism in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain, a construction that, by "creat[ing] an anonymity . . . also hinted, through anonymity, at a threatening Luddite omnipresence" (168). Stephen Behrendt's essay on "Staged Presence in Romantic Autobiography" takes up Stelzig's argument that autobiography, rather than becoming a distinct genre, reflects an intractable difficulty in marking the boundary between fact and fiction. Behrendt cites the 1970s Carly Simon song "You're So Vain" to ask whether, and how, it matters, who "You" is, and then discusses a series of Romantic instances of similar practices--Haydon's incorporation of the faces of Wordsworth and Keats in his painting Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, Byron's transparent fictions in poems like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, and Shelley's introduction of a figure very like himself as the "wraith-like mourner" (155) in Adonais--to suggest that autobiography, rather than aspiring to the candid acknowledgment of facts, exemplifies the "inherently performative" nature of self-reflection. In the other essay in this section, which could well have been included in the group on "Male Self-Fashioning," Jaspar Cragwall attributes the lifelong deferral of publication of Wordsworth's Prelude to the inescapable similarities between Wordsworth's claims to poetic "inspiration" and the comparable, and highly disreputable, claims of the lowest and most enthusiastic of Methodist "field preachers" who posed a real threat to the social place of the Anglican church in early nineteenth-century Britain. Cragwall contends that the new historicist framing of Wordsworth's apostasy is deeply mistaken; he argues that "since the 1980s, romantic studies have subjected these rhetorics of spiritual transcendence to a withering critique as forms of false consciousness, bourgeois privilege and the ‚Äòdenial of history,'" when "at the dawn of the nineteenth century, they were taken as slogans of resistance, rebellion and class warfare" (181).

The essays in this collection are consistently fresh and original in their treatments of an extraordinary range of forms of autobiographical practice. I see no unifying thread to these essays, and no hope of finding in them a sustained argument that would summarize the shape or the conditions of possibility of autobiography in early nineteenth-century Britain. This is probably for the best. Every definition of "autobiography" (e.g., Lejeune) cited in this book, and even every hypothesis about the central questions that should inform the study of autobiography, falls so far short of the range of practices described in this collection as to confirm Paul de Man in judging that the most fundamental questions about the generic nature of "autobiography" are both "pointless and unanswerable."


James O'Rourke is Professor of English at Florida State University.



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